The Butcher Boy tells the story of a young woman who takes her own life after her lover abandons her after making her pregnant. Her final request is that her grave should be both wide and deep.
She asks for the traditional marble stone but she also wants something extra. She wants a turtle dove placed at the centre of the grave “so the world may know that I died for love”.
The Butcher Boy may seem to spill over to melodrama at times but the sentiments are real, as was the social disapproval of pregnancy outside marriage. The pressure was enough to tip many girls over the edge.
There are variations of The Butcher Boy throughout Ireland, the UK, America and Australia.
In some versions the girl dies of a broken heart after being abandoned, and butcher boy is replaced by a sailor or a farmer, but the basic story remains the same.
The song may have originated in England but there are no reliable published sources to verify this. As with many great traditional songs, several towns and countries claim it but none can provide conclusive proof.
The location of the song tends to change depending on the nationality of the singer, or it can even come down to where the performance is taking place.
The Clancy Brothers, who were great champions of Irish music, regarded The Butcher Boy as an English song and gave the location as London in the opening line.
Other versions give the location simply as Moore Street, which is perhaps more diplomatic as it gets dodges the issue of locating the song in any particular country.
The Butcher Boy has an American version called Tarrytown which follows the same theme but has this additional verse which is not found in the Irish and UK versions of the song.
Oh, when I wore my apron low,
He’d follow me, through ice and snow,
Now that I wear my apron high,
He goes right down my street and passes by.
There is also another variant of The Butcher Boy called Tarrytown which was recorded by The Brothers Four. In that version, it’s the man who gets jilted, after his fiancé turns to another lover who has more silver and gold.